My 15-year-old daughter recently hit a major developmental stage: she decided she hates where she lives. She’s been mercilessly haranguing me: why do we have to stay in upstate New York? Our town is too small. It’s boring. She doesn’t relate to most of the people. The kids in her school are racist and homophobic. They use slurs and wear confederate flag t-shirts. Can’t we move back to New York City? She’d be happier there. I could get a real job again! I’d make more money. We could get an apartment—she doesn’t care how small. Why did we leave, anyway?
I listen to this litany with a kind of hapless bemusement. Eleven years ago, when she was four, my then-husband and I moved upstate, in large part, on her account: to raise her in an environment we hoped would offer her a better quality of life. At this point, it’s a cliché. More space, a real yard, a driveway, a safe neighborhood where she could run around and play. Decent public schools, a slower pace, beautiful landscapes, easy access to farms and nature.
I don’t need her complaining to alert me to the fact that our move didn’t pan out as expected—from the very beginning, harsh realities overwhelmed our rural fantasies. My husband couldn’t find steady work. Renovations on our rambling Victorian farmhouse drained us emotionally and financially. Though our chosen public school district turned out to be pretty good—at least through elementary school—my husband and I struggled socially to integrate. In 2010 we split up, painfully but amicably, and in 2011, determined to abandon the journalism that had always supported me in favor of far-less-lucrative creative writing, I took a day job at a bookstore/bar in nearby Hudson. Don’t think there weren’t days when I sourly questioned why a former staff writer for Newsweek with a six-figure salary was sweeping floors and pouring pints for $10 an hour plus tips. (Some of our upstate travails were chronicled in a 2007 article for New York Magazine, “I, Citiot.”)
Don’t think there weren’t days when I sourly questioned why a former staff writer for Newsweek with a six-figure salary was sweeping floors and pouring pints for $10 an hour plus tips.
But that extremely humbling period after my divorce turned out to be what I needed. If, outwardly, I had pinned much of the rationale for moving upstate on my family, inside, I harbored a deeper, more personal reason. Reinvention is a cloying, obnoxious word, but I moved upstate in order to become somebody different—to alter stimuli and bombard myself with radical new influences. It took years to let go of my fantasies, but little by little, as I wiped the bar, put beers in front of interesting patrons, and immersed myself in literature and art instead of the pop culture that had swaddled me in the city, as I went on hikes in the Catskills and contemplated the iconic beauty of the Hudson Valley, it finally happened. A voice rose up in me, and came out in stories and poems. Timidly at first. Bathed in shame. I took writing workshops, and the participants and leaders encouraged me. I did a few readings, and audiences encouraged me. I submitted a few poems, and won $10 and honorable mention in a contest. (The old Monopoly community chest card rang in my brain: “You have won second prize in a beauty contest.”) Each tiny reward felt outsized, hard-earned. When I first started work at the bar, I used to shrivel if a city acquaintance or former colleague walked unexpectedly through the door. I didn’t want them to see me in a service job. But I was thriving more than I knew (and, pretty soon, was managing the place). One day, still wistful for what I’d left behind, I asked a rep from a publishing house in Brooklyn to let me know if any jobs opened up. “Sure,” he said. “But you know, we all secretly long to run a bookstore/bar in upstate New York.”
That clinched it. I never again regretted my new life, or cheapened the value of something I’d paid dearly for. And, as if released from the past, more good things started happening. I made some spoken word recordings with musician friends who knew I’d been writing poetry. Other musician friends, fellow upstate transplants Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, heard the recordings, liked them, and asked if I’d be interested in forming a band. Eric, who’d gotten his start in the ‘70s British punk scene, dubbed us the Schoemer Formation—it sounds great in a Cockney accent—and we began playing locally in bars and clubs. I don’t lie to myself—Eric and Amy have real music careers; I’m their side project. But I also don’t lie to myself: we’re good. This past July, we made our NYC debut at the Hi Fi Bar on Avenue A. In the fall, we’re planning to record an album.
I asked a rep from a publishing house in Brooklyn to let me know if any jobs opened up. “Sure,” he said. “But you know, we all secretly long to run a bookstore/bar in upstate New York.
I thought it would be strange, being onstage in a city where I’d spent my life as a spectator. But if that ghostly younger girl was sitting in the audience, wide-eyed, I never saw her. Performing takes a lot of focus, and I fully embodied the person I am now. Sweeter still was the late-night ride on the Taconic in Eric and Amy’s van, knowing the place I was going was called home.
So when my daughter starts haranguing me about how lousy her life upstate is, I go through a series of responses. I tell her it’s normal for teenagers to hate where they live, and in a few short years she’s going to be old enough to make that decision for herself. I tell her that I’m proud of her for knowing that racism and homophobia are wrong, and that I admire her for standing up for her core values. Then I use what I call the airplane defense, after the video at the start of flights that tells parents to put on their own oxygen masks before attending to their children. I tell her that, while I wish she were happier, I love my life upstate. I’m settled here. I don’t want to turn it upside-down. I loved my old city life, too, but I left it a lot more easily than I will ever leave this one. Dusty floors and all.